USS Starlight (AP-175) was a Storm King class auxiliary transport. She was designed as a troop carrier.
Starlight was laid down on 9 October 1943 as SS Starlight (MC hull 1358) by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, Wilmington, North Carolina; launched on 23 December 1943; sponsored by Mrs. M. T. Solomon; acquired by the Navy from the War Shipping Administration on a bareboat charter; converted into an auxiliary transport by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Staten Island, N.Y.; and commissioned on 15 February 1944, CDR. W. O. Britton, USNR, in command.
Starlight, as an auxiliary transport, was assigned to the Naval Transportation Service for duty. Sea trials were held in Long Island Sound; and she sailed to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to begin her shakedown cruise. She remained there from 12 May to 5 June when she weighed anchor for the Panama Canal and the Hawaiian Islands. The transport arrived at Pearl Harbor on 26 June and was assigned to Transport Division (TransDiv) 38.
The 305th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) of the 77th Infantry Division was combat loaded on board on 1 July and TransDiv 38 sailed for Eniwetok, Marshall Islands, the next day. There, she joined other units of Task Group (TG) 53.2, Assault Group Four, for the amphibious assault on Guam, Mariana Islands. The task group sortied on the 17th and, four days later, landed the assault troops on the beaches. Starlight remained in the combat area until 29 July. She was loaded with Marine Corps combat casualties for evacuation, and sailed, via Eniwetok, for Pearl Harbor.
Starlight arrived at Pearl Harbor on 10 August. After a few repairs were made and the ship was provisioned, RCT 32 of the 7th Infantry Division was embarked for amphibious assault training. On 17 September, the transport sailed for the invasion of Yap, Caroline Islands, but these orders were cancelled when two days out of port. Her new orders routed the ship, via the Marshall Islands and the Admiralty Islands, to the Philippines. As a unit of Attack Group Able, Starlight landed troops on the Dulag beachhead on 20 October as the Leyte invasion began. When all troops had been disembarked from TransDiv 38, it sailed for Hollandia, New Guinea, as part of a “turn around” resupply operation. Starlight returned to Leyte on 18 November with replacements for combat casualties which were unloaded in eight hours, under enemy air attack. The transport shot down two enemy aircraft before steaming to Manus and Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, for amphibious training of the 145th RCT, 37th Infantry Division. Starlight returned to Manus on 21 December 1944 and sortied late in the month with TG 79.1 for Luzon.
She landed troops on Binmaley Beach, Lingayen Gulf, on 9 January 1945 and remained there for three days during which she shot down two more Japanese planes. The ship returned to New Guinea on the 22nd; loaded troops of the 41st Infantry Division for Mindoro; and landed them safely on 29 January. She then sailed for Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, and Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, to embark elements of Marine Air Group (MAG) 33 for delivery to Okinawa.
She embarked some elements at both ports and departed the Solomons on 14 March for Manus, Ulithi, and Peleliu. As a unit of Amphibious Group 4, TF 53, she reached Okinawa on 11 April and unloaded her cargo at Hagushi Beach and Nago Wan. During the next week, she had splashed two more Japanese planes. The ship returned to Ulithi on 24 April and was ordered to proceed to San Francisco for an overhaul.
Starlight was at San Francisco from 12 April to 11 July when she sailed for Manila with elements of the 780th Field Artillery and the 554th Signal Depot Co. embarked. After making calls at Eniwetok and Ulithi, the troops were unloaded at Manila during the first week of August. The troop transport was steaming to Pearl Harbor when she received news of the Japanese surrender. The troopship was then used to shuttle troops between Saipan, Tinian, Guam, and Sasebo, until routed to the west coast in mid-December 1945.
Starlight arrived at San Pedro, California, on 2 January 1946; loaded Marines; and disembarked them at Tientsin, China, on 9 February. Through June, she made two more voyages from the west coast to the Far East. On 5 July, Starlight stood out of San Francisco en route to the east coast and inactivation. Starlight arrived at Norfolk on 20 July; decommissioned on 12 August; was returned to the Maritime Commission on 14 August; and struck from the Navy list on 28 August 1946.
The ship was sold to States Marine Lines, Inc. and renamed the SS Badger State. She was hired under contract with the Military Sea Transportation Service in 1969, she sailed from Naval Weapons Station Bangor around December 12, 1969 with a full load of 8,900 bombs, rockets, shells and mines bound for Da Nang, South Vietnam. As the ship made its way across the North Pacific she came into heavy weather roughly 550 miles North of Midway Island on the 17th and began to roll heavily in the growing waves and howling winds. As the ship rolled from side to side, the securing bands on her dangerous cargo began to give way threatening to let the bombs come loose onboard, meaning almost certain destruction for ship and her crew. Racing to re-secure the cargo in the midst of a major storm, the crew of the Badger State used everything they could to shore up the dangerous load of bombs; ships mattresses, hatch boards, spare lifejackets, chairs, linen, stores, mooring lines and even frozen meat to keep the bombs from coming loose.
For the next nine days the fight continued as the ship was lashed by ferocious weather, her Captain trying several different courses to minimize the ships side to side movement in the 20 foot seas. All efforts to secure the dangerous cargo were seemingly ineffective as the bombs destroyed much of their blocking and bracing and began to roll freely around the ship, striking her inner hull with enough force to punch holes and allow water to enter the ship. Terrified crew continued to do everything they could to prevent or lessen the movement of the cargo until the morning of December 26, when a single bomb detonated in cargo hold #5.
While the explosion was not a full force detonation, it blew a 12x8ft hole in her Starboard side and started a large fire on the Stern of the Badger State. The order to abandon ship went out immediately despite the continuing bad weather, which was then lashing the ship with 25 ft waves and 40 knot winds. No sooner had crew unlashed two rubber liferafts the howling winds tore them off the deck of the ship. Two other rubber liferafts were lowered into the water, only to be overturned and throwing two men into the water. With the rubber rafts gone, the entire ships compliment had to squeeze into the one operating lifeboat, the other having been damaged by the high seas.
35 men were being lowered into the water along the Starboard side of the ship in the remaining lifeboat when they passed the massive hole blown in the ship's hull, where they could clearly see the entire cargo load of bombs rolling back and forth in the hold, which was still afire. As the lifeboat hit the waters surface, it was immediately slammed into the hull of the Badger State by a wave, which also shook a massive 2000 lb bomb loose from her #5 hold. The bomb rolled across the bottom of the hold and straight out of the hole blown in the ship's hull, and landed on the side of the full lifeboat, capsizing it and sending the 35 men into the 48 degree water.
Captain Charles T. Wilson of the Badger State and a skeleton crew of five men who volunteered to remain onboard immediately dropped lines to the crew who were in the water in an attempt to save them, and vectored the Greek freighter the Khian Star which had responded to the distress call to the survivors now scattered in the water around them, which later earned the Khian Star the Merchant Marine Gallant Ship Citation awarded by the Secretary of Transportation. Rescue in the heavy seas proved almost impossible, as many of the men in the water were washed away as they were being pulled up to the decks from the surging waves. By daybreak on the 27th, only 14 of the crew who were in the lifeboat had been recovered; the other 21 were never seen alive again.
By this point the fires on the Badger State were beginning to set off other munitions, and the cargo loads in her forward two holds had come loose and could have detonated at any moment. After sending a final message from the ship, the Captain and his remaining crew abandoned ship into the Pacific and swam for the Khian Star through the 20 ft seas. Of the five men, only three survived the swim, including the Captain.
Now totally abandoned and powerless, the Badger State was slowly consumed by fire from the Stern forward, and was rocked with countless detonations as she drifted around the North Pacific for the next ten days. Navy ships arrived onscene to assess the situation and possibly save the ship and what remained of its cargo, but the fire and explosions led to the Navy ordering that the Badger State be sunk as a hazard to navigation.
As the salvage tug USS Abnaki began to close in on the Badger State to open fire, the ship broke up and sank at this location on January 5, 1970. 29 members of her crew died as a result of the sinking.
Starlight received four battle stars for World War II service.